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Post Deaths of Tom Wolfe, Bernard Lewis
Created by John Eipper on 05/22/18 4:05 AM

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Deaths of Tom Wolfe, Bernard Lewis (David Duggan, USA, 05/22/18 4:05 am)

I'm surprised that no one on WAIS has commented on the deaths of two grand men of the second half of the 20th century whose work had far-reaching effect on our national polity, our traditions, and our ability to look at ourselves and say, "How did we get here?": Bernard Lewis and Tom Wolfe.

Perhaps more than any two persons of that era, they defined the engaged intellectual, the academic whose popular output not only contributed to our learning but also put a smile on our faces. And though radically different (in a chic sense), there is a unifying theme between the two.

Tom Wolfe, he of the white suit come rain or snow, shine or gloom, left his native Richmond, Virginia to attend Yale where he earned his PhD in American studies. Not content with the academic life, he went to work for the Springfield, Mass. Union (once the Springfield Republican: Charles Dow of Dow-Jones fame and Emily Dickinson had bylines there), and perhaps single-handedly created the "New Journalism" (Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese were johnnys-come-lately). Disproving the adage that there are no second acts in America, Wolfe helped recast the American novel with his first work of fiction, The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987. Stuck in Updikean introspection, the American novel became fun again. Think, where would Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City be without TBotV? Unsurprisingly, Wolfe and John Updike did not like each other. No 20th-century Thackeray, whose work never really rose above satire, Wolfe was able to plumb the depths of human emotion and capacity for self-deceit in A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. Yet his additions to our vocabulary, "radical chic," "the right stuff," "good ‘ol boy," "the Me Decade," and "social x-rays" (his term for "trophy wife" which he did not coin) will live on, I dare say into the 22nd century.

Bernard Lewis, he of the Sam Ervin eyebrows and rumpled academic dress, left his native England in the 1950s and accepted a position at Princeton in 1974. His The Roots of Muslim Rage (1990), The Crisis of Islam (2004) and What Went Wrong (2001, though written before the 9/11 attacks) are classics of the political-historian's art, and in some ways helped to reverse a two-centuries old tilt of the West toward a benign interpretation of the post-Lepanto Islamic Middle East (Richard Burton and Gertrude Bell, are you listening from the hallows of the golden raisins?). Of course, Lewis had his interlocutor, Edward Said of Columbia. This was not a mere Ivy-League academic dust-up: both coming from different places (Lewis a London Jew, Said of Palestinian-Christian origin born in mandate-Jerusalem), each perceived Islam through a different lens. Lewis thought the religion as calcifying to the culture. Said thought that the religion was downstream from culture and the West's impression of Islam was because of a cultural imperialism against the "other."

I said that there was a unifying theme between Wolfe, the octogenarian and Lewis, the centenarian (he died 12 days before his 102nd birthday) and it is not that both have names indicative of Jewish origins, nor that Wolfe (raised an Episcopalian) spurned an undergraduate education at Princeton to pursue baseball and journalism at Washington & Lee in Virginia. Both were staunch supporters of Bush I and II, perhaps not so surprising in this day of their rehabilitation in light of our current president. Tom Wolfe and Bernard Lewis, RIP.

JE comments:  David Duggan notes the passing of two titans.  Bernard Lewis in particular has received much attention from WAIS over the years.  He was a controversial figure, greatly admired by WAISer Luciano Dondero (among others) and reviled as a neo-Zionist and neoconservative by Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich.  Vincent Littrell has also cited Lewis in many of his postings (enter "Bernard Lewis" into the WAIS search box at waisworld.org).

To Tom Wolfe's list of colorful expressions, add "screw the pooch."  Cameron Sawyer explains:


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  • Meeting Bernard Lewis (Edward Jajko, USA 05/22/18 2:41 PM)

    I had the honor of meeting Bernard Lewis twice during my career in Middle East studies.

    The first time was when I was either in college or graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania; I can't remember. In either case, it was the early or mid 1960s when Lewis had joined Princeton from the University of London for what seemed to be a temporary visit that turned out to be permanent. My teacher, Dr. S.D. Goitein, invited all of his students to his house to meet Prof. Lewis. In the course on Arab history that many of us were taking with Dr. Goitein, he was using as the textbook, or really as a sort of pony, the very thin historical-sketch History of the Arabs that Prof. Lewis had published as a Harper Torchbook paperback. I still have that book someplace. I recall that as an interesting evening in which Goitein was proud of both his guest and students. As I write this, I recall that at that get-together at Goitein's house, Prof. Lewis told of recent travels through Central Asia. I recall specifically his saying that, although he did not speak the various Turkic languages he came across in his travels, he was able to use his Turkish, in which he was fluent; there were enough similarities that he was able to get by.

    I next met Prof. Lewis when he came to the Stanford campus to deliver the West Coast presentation of the Jefferson Lecture. This was when I was still curator of the Hoover's Middle East Collection. My boss was able to grab him during the day and I was in turn able to give Prof. Lewis a personal tour of the Middle East Collection in the Hoover Institution Library. Our collection paled in comparison with those that he was accustomed to using, that of Princeton University, for example, which is the best in the country and one of the best in the world, but he was still interested in what we had and generous with his compliments and evaluation. He was also generous with his time with and interest in me.

    My late brother, who was then a civil servant at the highest levels of military intelligence in the Pentagon, in the days of Secretaries Rumsfeld and Cohen, spoke glowingly of the briefings that Prof. Lewis presented before senior staff of DoD.

    The great strength of Bernard Lewis, besides his brilliance, phenomenal memory, and ability to synthesize tons to stuff mentally, was the fact that he had read simply everything, in many languages--Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, and God knows what else. He had read all the Arab historians, of whom there are hundreds, at the very least, as well as the poets--thousands--and other authors, and done the same for the Persian and Turkish as well. He knew the Qur'an and its innumerable commentators, and the hadith and its commentaries. Of course, he knew the Hebrew and Greek scriptures--did I neglect to mention Greek and Latin among his languages?--and the Talmud. Whatever the controversies of his opinions and briefings, they were based on absolutely solid knowledge.

    One example of this can probably still be found in the web pages of Foreign Affairs. In the 1990s, the London Arab newspaper al-Quds al-‘Arabi (a title that translates to Arab Jerusalem) published Usamah bin Ladin's declaration of war on "Jews and Crusaders [i.e. Christians] wherever they might be." In Foreign Affairs, Lewis published an absolutely brilliant analysis of this declaration of war, showing how UBL's mental, cultural, and of course religious reference points were totally foreign to those of the West. It was basically, get to know your enemy or else. It was brilliantly done and is worth reading and studying.

    Bernard Lewis was not without controversy. There were those who had problems with even his first book, which was on Turkey, and scholars pecked away at him for all his life. I had problems with his book entitled, I believe, Semites and Anti-Semites. If I recall correctly, he begins the book by saying that to be anti-Israeli is not to be anti-Semitic. By the end of the book, he has argued himself into saying that the two are equated. I stress: if I recall the book correctly. There was, of course, the famous (or infamous?) controversy with the late Edward Said.

    Edward Said was professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. He was a sort of disruptor of things Middle Eastern, having come up with his controversial ideas about Orientalism and published a successful book under that title. It was Said's view that traditional Orientalists had a skewed image of the Middle East as the Other. (It did not help things that modern "Oriental" studies, at least of Islam and the Middle East, were founded by a 19th century Hungarian Jew, Ignaz Goldziher.) Lewis was an Orientalist, a Mustashriq. I, too, was trained in the Orientalist tradition, and proudly call myself one. At a Middle East Studies Association conference some years ago, I was one of hundreds who attended a jam-packed battle between Lewis and Said. Prof. Lewis spoke first, receiving a rather lukewarm hand, followed by a rapid-fire Said, who got tumultuous applause. These were, after all, American university professors, for the most part, and students, hence "progressives." But while Edward Said, although a Columbia University professor, was a member of the Palestinian National Congress, he really couldn't hold a candle to Bernard Lewis in terms of Middle East scholarship.

    Bernard Lewis was a university professor in the UK, then at Princeton. Then, when he had retired from Princeton, he was hired by the University of Pennsylvania and appointed as head of the then Annenberg institute of Judaic studies in Philadelphia. This institute was established by the philanthropist Walter Annenberg--who made his massive fortune by inventing and publishing TV Guide--on the demise of the Dropsie College of Hebrew and Cognate Learning, in Philadelphia. This unique graduate-level institution, which had produced many distinguished PhDs, had gone bankrupt. Annenberg bailed it out, transforming it into an institute under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. Bernard Lewis was appointed as its first dean. This was not a happy arrangement, and he left after about a year (I am using my recollections here). When we spoke about this, on his visit to the Hoover Institution, he was guarded and not happy.

    The controversy with Said will continue to dog the memories of Bernard Lewis. But for those who knew him personally or who knew his work, he remains a giant. The simple fact is that he had read, understood, assimilated, and synthesized everything, and I mean everything, in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and God knows what other languages. The man was a giant.

    JE comments:  To Prof. Lewis's intellectual achievements, we should add his superhuman longevity (he was born one month before the attack on the Somme, and died 12 days shy of 102).  A brilliant tribute, Ed.  Thank you.

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    • Bernard Lewis's Obituary: NYT (Edward Jajko, USA 05/25/18 2:15 PM)
      The long obituary of Bernard Lewis in the May 22 New York Times is worth reading. It even shows examples of Lewis's wittiness:

      Mr. Lewis's views on the connection between Islam and terrorism inspired controversy but also helped shape American foreign policy under George W. Bush.

      JE comments:  See below.  I never knew that "Clash of Civilizations" was first coined by Lewis, and later borrowed (famously) by Huntington.


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    • "Conflicted Legacy of Bernard Lewis": Martin Kramer (Luciano Dondero, Italy 06/10/18 4:35 AM)

      "The Conflicted Legacy of Bernard Lewis" is an essay about the recently departed scholar, written by Martin Kramer, an American-Israeli professor at Shalem College in Jerusalem. He is himself a scholar of the Middle East, focusing on Islam and Arab politics.

      The essay in Foreign Affairs is available here:  https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/martinkramer/files/the_legacy_of_bernard_lewis.pdf

      Kramer argues that "Bernard Lewis, historian of the Middle East, was widely misunderstood. But no other person in our time has done as much to inform and influence the West's view of the Islamic world and the Middle East."

      JE comments:  Was Lewis the "last Orientalist," as his detractors (such as the late Edward Said) claim, or the first real historian of the Middle East?  Kramer emphatically embraces the latter view. 

      To be sure, Kramer is an ideological disciple of Lewis.  Both have been labeled neocons, proponents of a muscular engagement with the Middle East that goes beyond scholarship to include nation-building (in Kramer's words, "social engineering").  History has shown that this means war.

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